How Working in My Dad's Clothing Store Helped Me Build My Dream Startup

07/19/2016 06:28 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2016

Wedged next to a falafel stand and a bag shop in Haifa, Israel, lies a tiny little clothing store called Moses Style. Started by my father, Moshe London, the store has been a fixture on 40 Pioneer Street — Ha Halutz 40 — for more than 35 years. I can still hear the door jingling as customers walk in, ready to find what they’re looking for. At home, the store was the center of dinnertime conversation. Who stopped by? Did they get what they needed? Was it a good day? The store was personal; it was ours. My father poured everything he had into the business to provide for me and my family. In fact, when you look up Moses Style on Google Maps you can even see my dad in the middle of helping a customer.

Little did I know that what I learned inside that tiny storefront would end up becoming the backdrop for the rest of my life.

Startups, funding, unicorns —  I didn’t know what any of these words meant as I hurried to the store after school to organize merchandise, sweep the floors, and do whatever else that was needed to keep the place running. I cared so much about making the store run better because I wanted to help my family and our customers. And that love for the store is what eventually got me into computer programming.

My first computer was a state-of-the-art Intel 386 running on MS-DOS, with a turbo button that allowed you to toggle between 20Mhz and 40Mhz. (Note: Today’s computers run on 3.5Ghz, and sadly, turbo buttons are a thing of the past.) It was blocky with sharp edges, and encased in a beige speckled plastic that was smooth to the touch. I thought it was glorious.

 

How it began

The summer after 7th grade, I marched right into a computer store — yes, they existed back then — threw my allowance on the counter, and bought the biggest book I had ever seen at the time: Programming with Visual Basic. I spent all summer long learning the language, and while staring at the bilingual keyboard, I picked up quite a bit of English too.

Every day, I had a list of chores to get through once I finished my homework. But the best part was the time I spent on my computer after those chores were done. That was my prize. The delicious delight I saved for last. And whenever I turned on that screen, another world would open up for me.

I spent months building my first program: a simple inventory manager that helped us monitor how many shirts, jeans, and other items we had in stock. When we ordered from our suppliers, it was hard to figure out how much we really needed. So I decided to use my computer to help simplify that process. The program wasn’t slick. It was just a simple Windows application with a spreadsheet-looking form that asked you to enter current inventory levels. When you submitted the form, the interface simply said, “Toda!” (“thank you” in Hebrew). For fun, I added a graph to see how our inventory levels changed over time. There was no product development process here, no specs or designers involved. It was just me and that giant Visual Basic book towering next to me, sweetly nudging me as I went along.

When the program worked, it was pure magic. Basically, it sounded like this a million times over.   

We were at home when it happened. My dad leaned over my shoulder, the screen reflected in his eyes. How could an idea inside my head come to life inside that machine? He couldn’t believe it, and neither could I. That single moment was the first hint of what my eventual passion in life would be.

Our inventory manager worked — now that we knew how much to buy from our suppliers, we saw an entire world of possibilities of making our entire back-end operations automated... I asked, “What if the program could help us order supplies somehow?” So my next project was to create an instant way to send an order form to our vendors. Really, what I did was an early version of the product development process: talking to your customers, learning about their world, and identifying opportunities to make their lives better with technology.

Once I built the second program, my dad finally saw computers in a new light. It went from being his son’s brainy side project into something that could actually improve his business, and therefore, his life. Soon after, he decided we should get one for Moses Style. Imagine that, the first store in Hadar HaCarmel (הדר הכרמל) — our neighborhood in Haifa — with an on-premise computer. The two of us walked down to the computer store, picked one off the shelf, and lugged it back to Moses Style. We stashed it in the back of the store, and every evening, we’d flick it on to track how we did that day. It was just this giant, ugly thing, but it was so beautiful to me.

But technology is just one part of the equation. To build a successful business, you also have to understand people. And hidden between all those hangers and stack of clothes, I learned how to do just that.

 

It’s all about the customer

Every day, my dad stands outside his shop greeting people who walk by. When customers enter the store, that same kindness shines through the service he provides. His idea of customer service isn’t just about finding someone the right piece of clothing — it’s the kind of service that comes straight from the heart. It’s the way he says hello, the gleam of his smile, and the warmth customers feel when they leave the shop.

When you think about buying a shirt, it’s so transactional: you pick one out, the cash register chirps, and the sale is done. But over a period of time, that transaction turns into a relationship. If someone comes in saying they need a suit, my dad doesn’t just show them suits. He tries to learn as much about them as he can: who they are, where they’re from, if they know the neighbor around the corner.

It’s this interactive process that’s warm, from beginning to end.

That’s the same experience we’re trying to bring to Gusto. When we prompt customers to log in to the app, the message is relaxed and helpful, like a conversation you would have with a good friend. “Hey Tomer, it’s time to pay your employees!” You click on the email, we say “good morning,” tell you what you have to do, and offer more help if you need it. This isn’t rocket science. This is exactly what it would feel like if you walked into my dad’s store.

My father also puts a special Israeli twist on that experience. In Haifa, every person is from somewhere else. The city is a prime example of how Jews and Arabs are living together (most of the time) in peace. You can see that spirit come alive in the Hadar HaCarmel  neighborhood where Moses Style is located. On an average day, you’ll hear the sounds of Arabic, Russian, Hebrew, and Amharic echoing down the street. Inside those sounds, there’s a mutual respect that almost permeates the air.

To help connect with all those different people, my dad knows a basic vocabulary in around ten languages. When he fires off a few words in a customer’s native tongue, it makes them feel welcome in his store, but also, in Israel as a whole. That simple gesture takes on a deeper meaning in a country where war is like the weather —  it’s just another part of life. 

 

Playing the long game

In Israel, people make deals everywhere — taxi cabs, markets, even restaurants. Everywhere, that is, except Moses Style. My dad never bargains with customers because he believes everyone is entitled to the same fair price.

One day, I was alone in the store when a lady walked up to the register with her merchandise. She took her heap of clothes, splayed them across the counter, and said, “You’ll give me a good discount, right?” I shook my head. “Your dad always gives me a deal, and you’ll be in big trouble if you don’t.”

While I felt intimidated, I knew what she said wasn’t true. She eventually bought the clothes at full price, and walked out in a huff. When I told my father about it afterwards, he was proud that I stood my ground. He cares so much about doing the right thing for his customers, and if a single price is unfair, it’s unacceptable to him.

When you have a business, you have to be in it for the long haul. Even when it’s hard, you have to stick with what you believe in. Success isn’t about how you do today — it’s about how you’ll do 30 years from now.

Let’s say you spend an entire hour with someone and it doesn’t end up in a sale —  this shouldn’t be considered time wasted. It’s a chance to help the customer find what they’re looking for, even if it’s not with you. If Moses Style doesn’t have what someone is looking for, the salesperson tells them which stores to go to instead. This may seem counterintuitive, but being on the customer’s side creates long-term dividends in the end. That person might not buy today, but they’ll buy next week, or they’ll refer their friends because they felt really valued in that moment. That’s the long-term play, and it’s an attitude I picked up from my dad.

 

Believing and trusting in people

When my parents took their first vacation together without the kids, they jetted off to Turkey for two weeks. I was 16, and my younger brother and I were left to run the show. Looking back, it was a long time to leave two teenagers by themselves. But somehow, we made it. We counted the money, made sure people didn’t steal, and locked up every evening. It was a lot of responsibility for my brother and I to shoulder, but success or failure, we knew we had to do it. That sense of responsibility was mesmerizing to me.  

As a small business owner, the stakes are high, which can make it hard to trust others — whether they’re your own family or your employees. But to empower people, you have to believe in them. You have to make them a part of your purpose. My dad’s employees would come over for Shabbat dinner, invite us to weddings, and over time, we became a part of each other’s lives. It was our shared purpose of providing for our families that sealed us together.  

One day, a longtime employee left Moses Style so she could spend more time with her kids. She was so experienced and empathetic; I thought she was the only one who could do the job well. To replace her, my dad hired a young guy who just got out of the army. I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t have any work experience, and was the total opposite of the lady who came before him. As it turned out, he did a great job because he connected so well with our younger customers. My dad was thinking about the future of the business and not just the current clientele. He really believed in the new hire and in the end it paid off.

 

Love what you do

Running a store like Moses Style takes a lot of dedication. You’re on your feet all day, and every morning you start from zero. Whenever my friends would come by, I would just stand around and talk to them — I never served them. It would’ve been too awkward. That was my dad’s job, and I was so proud of him when I watched him in action. Although there were elements of the job that I enjoyed, deep down I knew it wasn’t where my heart was.

But it did allow me to find my real passion: building things that could help other people. I didn’t know it was called engineering back then, I just knew it made me really happy.

To be successful, you have to enjoy what you’re doing. When my dad first started out, he made a decision to sell only to teenagers and young adults. I asked him why he didn’t choose a more affluent demographic, and he shrugged, “I don’t want to be around old people all day.” If you go to business school, it’s clear that this isn’t the textbook way of building a company. My dad just wants to work with people who energize him. The only way to be successful is to really love what you do at the end of the day. He follows his heart, and people see that.

Moses Style has seen a lot in its 35 years in business. Customers still come in to say hello, talk about life, and find the perfect pair of jeans. My dad still walks around folding clothes, adjusting mannequins, and making customers feel better than they did before they arrived. He’s still running a business based on love, hospitality and kindness, and I hope he never stops. And today, halfway across the world, I’m trying to do the exact same thing.

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